State: Opioid deaths decline slightly for 2nd straight year

  • While there was a decline in opioid deaths statewide for the second year in a row, according to state officials, Franklin County and the North Quabbin region saw recond-high numbers. Associated Press

Published: 2/13/2019 5:23:00 PM

While the state noted a 4 percent decline in deaths from opioid-related overdoses in 2018, Franklin County and the North Quabbin saw record-high numbers.

“It’s a record for us, which is really upsetting for a variety of reasons,” Opioid Task Force of Franklin County and the North Quabbin Region Coordinator Debra McLaughlin said Wednesday in reaction to the numbers released by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health. 

In the local area, 20 people died from opioid-related deaths, with six from Greenfield, five from Athol, four from Orange, two from Deerfield, two from Turners Falls and one from Ashfield, according to the Task Force, which gets its data from the Northwestern District Attorney’s Office and State Police. More specific numbers, by town, are typically not available in the state’s regular public health report, which tends to lag a year in town-by-town data. 

In 2017, there were 14 deaths from Franklin County and Athol, which marks this year’s opioid-related deaths rise at a 43 percent increase. 

McLaughlin attributed the steep rise to the increased presence of fentanyl in the region, which can be more likely to cause a death than heroin or prescription painkillers. 

“We just need to continue to double-down on our efforts to save lives in the region,” McLaughlin said. 

The Task Force is hoping to focus on three key tenets in the coming year. The Task Force will be looking to imlpement a similar police-community response program used in Hampshire County to help connect those who are using with addicition services; increase sober homes in the area; and raise awareness and education to harm-reduction models that seek to keep people alive until they are ready for treatment, which includes increasing the number of Sharps disposal containers in the region. 

Statewide

For the second consecutive year, the death rate related to opioid use has declined, state officials said Wednesday while warning the opioid crisis is still far from under control.

A report issued Wednesday by the Department of Public Health also showed that fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid, was present in nearly nine of 10 deaths in 2018 in which toxicology reports were complete. The connection of fentanyl to deadly overdoses has been rising steadily for the past five years.

There were 1,617 confirmed opioid-related overdose deaths in 2018, with another 320 to 394 expected to be added once cause of death is finalized for those cases, the report said. The number of confirmed or probable overdose deaths currently stood at 2,056 for the previous year.

Fatal overdoses declined 2 percent from 2016 to 2017.

“While we are encouraged to see fewer opioid-related overdose deaths for a second consecutive year and a 35 percent decrease in reported opioid prescriptions since 2015, the opioid epidemic continues to present a very serious challenge that is made more difficult due to the presence of fentanyl,” said Republican Gov. Charlie Baker, in a statement.

Fentanyl was present in 89 percent of toxicology screens ordered by the state’s chief medical examiner in 2018, the report said. Figures provided for the third quarter of the year showed cocaine present in 48 percent and heroin in 34 percent of the screens.

Massachusetts added new mandatory prison sentences last year for trafficking in fentanyl and carfentanil, another synthetic opioid.

Reducing opioid prescriptions has been a focus of state prevention efforts, including a 2016 law that limits first-time opioid prescriptions to a 7-day supply and allows patients to request that pharmacies fill less than the full prescription of a drug.

The Massachusetts Prescription Monitoring Program reported 546,000 Schedule II prescriptions — including such drugs as oxycodone and morphine — in the final three months of 2018.

Though encouraged by the overall decline in deaths, state officials sounded the alarm over statistics from 2017 that showed a 45 percent increase in opioid-related fatalities among non-Hispanic black males.

“The opioid epidemic does not discriminate by race or ethnicity or by geographic region,” said Dr. Monica Bharel, the state’s public health commissioner. “Individuals and families of every race and in every part of the state have been impacted.”


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